Military Justice in Vietnam

The Rule of Law in an American War

William Thomas Allison

The My Lai Massacre was the most publicized incident subjected to military law during the Vietnam War, but military lawyers in all the service branches had their hands full with less-publicized desertions, drug use, rapes, fraggings, black marketeering, and even small claims. William Allison reveals how the military justice system responded to crimes and infractions both inside and outside the combat zone and how it adapted to an unconventional political, military, and social climate as American involvement escalated.

In taking readers to war-torn Vietnam, Allison's study depicts a transitional period in the history of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which was revised in 1968. Reflecting American beliefs in discipline and efficiency in military operations, the Code and its implementation were viewed as an integral facet of pacification and counterinsurgency programs. As Allison makes clear, military law and justice in Vietnam were not intended merely as behavioral controls but were also promoted to the Vietnamese as American ideals: respect for the rule of law and an example of the best that democracy had to offer.

“A well-researched body of work that examines the U.S. military justice experience during the Vietnam War. . . . Engaging and enjoyable to read.

—On Point

“This book works wonderfully as an anecdotal history of U.S. military lawyers in a particular time and place, enlivened by the reminiscences of veterans whose letters to the author recapture emotions and experiences now forty years past. This is the way the war must have been for the lawyers who participated in it. Their stories, and those of their clients, are a first-class read. . . . This book is preferred as a readable brief introduction to the daily legal problems faced by military lawyers in Vietnam.

—H-Net Reviews
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American military law and lawyers made near daily contact with the Vietnamese people, and those interactions open an unusual window on the war and also shed light on contemporary military operations and nation-building missions. Based on deep research into wartime archives and interviews with participants in that conflict (including his own father, a Marine Corps lawyer who served in Vietnam), Allison offers a reflective and well-rounded picture of daily life for military lawyers in Vietnam. That portrait also illuminates the complexities of trying to impose military law and justice on a foreign culture not accustomed to Western-style democracy.

As Allison shows, while the difficulties were great and military justice may have fallen short of its goals, as in the My Lai case, military lawyers conducted themselves with honor in Vietnam. And as military crimes in Iraq dominate today's news and military justice in a combat zone continues to challenge our democratic ideals, his book provides critical insight into the historical process that underlies American military law today.

About the Author

William Thomas Allison is associate professor of history at Weber State University and was visiting professor in the Department of Strategy and International Security at the Air War College. His other books include American Diplomats in Russia: Case Studies in Orphan Diplomacy, Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright, and, with Robert C. Wadman, To Protect and Serve: A History of Police in America.

Additional Titles in the Modern War Studies Series